Climate change affects everything, everywhere, but differently wherever you are. It has an overall direction because (to simplify a bit) it has one underlying cause – the trapping of extra heat from the sun on earth by human pollution. This makes for Spring getting earlier, warm-weather wildlife in colder places, high tides getting higher, and ice melting in the poles and mountains. But in any place, like your own neighbourhood, it’s much more unpredictable. It’s about nasty surprises coming faster and faster: a flash-flood here, a mud-slide there, grinding drought, blasts of cold, searing heat, rising food prices, malaria cases, dying trees, raging fires, choking smoke … and that’s just on Tuesdays. The point is that as the world changes, we can’t know exactly what will happen. But we do know that we can’t engineer or buy our way out of it, not for long. Clearly we should have been trying harder to avoid the problem ever since the 1970s and 1980s, when we knew for sure that it was a problem. But we didn’t, and it’s now too late, and we can blame our idiot leaders for that. So is there anything useful that we can actually do now?
When we know that we are going to be attacked, but we don’t know by what or when, all we can do is to make ourselves stronger. This also applies to getting ready for climate change. We live within, and utterly depend upon, ecological and social systems, and it is these that we must strengthen. Ecological systems are all the soils, fields, woodlands, parks, streams, rivers, oceans, beaches and underground waters, along with all the living things in them whether cultivated or wild, that give us our food, water, safety and sense of belonging, wonder and joy in the living world. Ecological systems are what break down in most of the nasty surprises that come with climate change – the flash-floods, land-slides, fires, storm-surges, droughts, food shortages and new diseases. We have often weakened these systems due to lack of care, by building things in the wrong places, cutting down too many trees, growing the wrong crops, pumping up too much ground-water for irrigation, and polluting, draining or diverting waterways. A lot of this is local and affects local ecosystems, so we can do something about it locally, mainly by paying attention to the ways of nature – studying and thinking about ecology, and acting accordingly by teaching others, planting things, understanding what’s going on, and campaigning against the things that other people do which threaten us. Since everywhere is a local ecosystem, these are obvious ways to become stronger.
But we also live in social systems. These are made up of all those friends, neighbours, acquaintances, employers, employees, shop-keepers, teachers, council workers and everyone else with whom we have anything to do in living our lives. Some of these are local and many others are distant, and we can only do so much to affect the distant ones – this is where government and politics and economic policies come in, and we have little power over them. We have some power, though, and we could vote, lobby, campaign, march and otherwise join together to promote a stronger large-scale social system. This usually means calling for a fairer and more sustainable society, through green social democracy in our cities, regions, nations and continents. But this is hard work, and it is easy to get worn down when other people keep on voting for appalling politicians or stupid causes. But local social systems are very much within our own range of action, and we can strengthen them against climate change.
So what does this mean? The answer is residents’ associations. Lots of them, starting with where you live. As an example of what I mean, in 2010 a residents’ association known as HERA was set up in my neighbourhood in Bath, a town in south-western England. This was at the initiative of two individuals, Don and Thelma Grimes, but others soon saw the advantages. These included added impact in lobbying the city council for improved services or to deal with issues like over-hanging branches, parking permits, or road gritting in icy weather. It was soon became clear that the council took HERA much more seriously than it took individuals, especially once we had registered and appointed officers. We hold an open meeting every few weeks and some kind of HERA event every six months, whether a street party, or a social in a local pub or garden, which give us all an opportunity to help in planning, and to contribute food, equipment or services. These occasions are great fun. We also exchanged email addresses and phone numbers to create a network of people who had an interest in spreading news, like warnings about burst water pipes and burglaries, or notices of fireworks parties, funerals, planning-permission appeals, or litter collections in local parks.
In the process, vulnerable individuals were identified and the group was made aware of who would need to be checked on in the event of power cuts or extreme weather, and some funds were pooled to allow road salt to be stored in the sheds of able-bodied members against severe winter conditions on the local hill. We also did an inventory of all the skills and services available among HERA members (of which there are many!), and the findings circulated locally. Over a few years, with almost no investment, a neighbourhood has turned from a scattering of strangers into a group that is capable of discussing risks and opportunities, acting collectively to protect and advance its own interests, and sharing information about its own capabilities. Among the topics and activities that HERA has spontaneously discussed or acted on were setting up a memorial nature reserve (for Don), rehabilitating a local park so that it earned ‘Green Flag’ recognition from government, the issue of people replacing their front gardens on a local hill with parking spaces, because of its effects on water run-off and flash-flooding downhill, and – through its membership of a city-wide federation of residents’ associations – the problem of air pollution in the city as a whole.
The key point is that my neighbourhood before HERA was weak and vulnerable to whatever nasty surprises the world held in store. With HERA it is quite a bit stronger, and could easily grow stronger still, in response to challenges that arise, whatever they are. All it would take for HERA to become a local ‘climate change adaptation group’, for example, would be to agree some roles and do some training. And exactly the same can be said about any group of people anywhere, whether they cling to the slopes of high mountains, the shores of wild seas, or the fringes of harsh deserts. The implication is that strengthening millions of small groups across the world is an effective way to build humanity’s capacity to adapt to climate change, and that anyone can start doing it, just by talking to each other. After that, the sky’s the limit in terms of the groups networking, sharing lessons, and building the strength that we all need as dangers multiply in a changing world.
© Julian Caldecott